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Psalm 137

Sermon Transcript

From the founding of the kingdom in 1051 B.C. under the leadership of Saul, it took 465 years for Israel to go from a place of power and prominence to national oblivion.  During these tumultuous, trying, and sometimes triumphant years, the Lord warned His people of impending doom through the courageous cries, teaching, and preaching of the prophets, but for the most part their collective words fell on deaf ears.

King Jehoiakim (609-598 B.C.) banked his national security on Egypt, not God.  After the Babylonians defeated the Egyptians at the Battle of Carchemish on the Euphrates River in 605 B.C., later in the year King Nebuchadnezzar invaded the land of Israel to bring former Egyptian vassals, like Judah, under his control and power.  At this time, he also took some of the most academically promising young people from Israel, like Daniel, back to his homeland where he could brainwash them for his own political purposes (2 Kings 24:1-7; 2 Chron. 36:5-8; Dan. 1:1-4).

In 601 B.C., the Babylonians once again engaged the Egyptians, resulting in a huge loss of life on both sides and a withdraw from the militaristic stalemate.  Thinking this was an opportune time to rebel, Jehoiakim did (2 Kings 24:1). His political move proved fatal. In 598 B.C., the Babylonians marched and subdued the unwilling king and removed him to Babylon (2 Chron. 36:6). Eventually, they released him and he died in Jerusalem (Jer. 22:19; 36:30) in 598 B.C.

The Babylonians replaced King Jehoiakim with his eighteen-year-old son, Jehoiachin.  He only reigned for three months before the Babylonians removed him and sent him into captivity in Babylon (2 Kings 22:1-6).   His crime?  Revolting against the vassal.  In a second deportation in 597 B.C., ten thousand captives went with the king, along with 7,000 soldiers (2 Kings 24:16), and even Ezekiel the prophet (Ezek. 1:1-3) to Babylon. Additional treasures also wound up in the possession of the Jewish overlords.

Desiring a willing vassal, or should I say, puppet, to do their bidding, at the expense of the will or desire of the people of Israel, the Babylonians next installed Zedekiah to be Israel’s new “king.”  He ruinous eleven-year reign, which started in 597 B.C., came to an abrupt, horrific end when he unwisely turned to the Egyptians under the leadership of Pharaoh Hophra (589-570 B.C.), not God, for military assistance against the Babylonians.  They responded by laying siege to Jerusalem in January of 588 B.C., which was the ninth years of Zedekiah’s reign.  The Babylonians broke through the protective wall of Jerusalem on July 16, 586 B.C., which represented the fourth month of Zedekiah’s rulership (2 Kings 25:4-7).  The king fled, but was captured and taken to Nebuchadnezzar’s field headquarters at Riblah, which was located just north of Damascus.  Here his enemies forced him to watch the execution of his sons, and then they blinded him so he could stir up trouble no longer (Ezek. 12:3).  After this, he, too, wound up a captive in Babylon.

Four weeks after the defeat of Jerusalem on August 16, 586 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar sent Nebuzaradan, the commander of his imperial army, to burn Jerusalem to the ground and the level the temple and royal palace which had stood for some four hundred years.  With most of the populace either dead or captive in Babylon, only the poorest of the poor were left to view the smoldering ruins of the once glorious city (2 Kings 25:1-12). Who can even begin to understand the depth of emotions all of those who lived must have entertained as they witnessed the unthinkable: the destruction and defeat of their beloved country.

None of this happened in a vacuum. During those 465 years, the prophets had warned the complacent, carnal, and selfish people that God would discipline them if they didn’t turn to and trust Him.  For the most part, they refused to submit to the Lord’s leadership, choosing rather to go their own way.  Why did they lose their country? This is a major study in and of itself, so permit me to quickly highlight some of the reasons for their national demise:

The people spoke spiritual truth but they didn’t live it (Jer. 12:2)
The people lived for devising new ways to sin (Mic. 2:1)
Many used violence as a means to steal land from others (Mic. 2:2)
Leaders didn’t lead with justice, but chose to take advantage of the people, while also failing to teach truth (Mic. 3:1-2)
The people loved and embraced false teaching over true teaching (Mic. 3:5)
The people loved to hear false and positive messaging, not truth and sobering reality (Mic. 3:11-12)
Crime was the order of any given day (Mic. 7:2)
Infighting existed at all levels (Mic. 7:5-6)
The law had absolutely no teeth (Hab. 1:4)
Idol worship ran rampant (Zep. 1:4-5).

The prophet Zephaniah aptly summarized the reasons for the fall of his nation with these divinely inspired words:

Woe to her who is rebellious and defiled, The tyrannical city! 2 She heeded no voice; She accepted no instruction. She did not trust in the LORD; She did not draw near to her God. 3 Her princes within her are roaring lions, her judges are wolves at evening; They leave nothing for the morning. 4 Her prophets are reckless, treacherous men; her priests have profaned the sanctuary. They have done violence to the law. 5 The LORD is righteous within her; He will do no injustice. Every morning He brings His justice to light; He does not fail. But the unjust knows no shame. 6 "I have cut off nations; their corner towers are in ruins. I have made their streets desolate, with no one passing by; their cities are laid waste, without a man, without an inhabitant. (Zeph. 3).

Corruption.  It’s a word which best describes the ultimate reason for the fall of the Judean empire.  Corruption touched everything from how political leaders led to what people on the street believed constituted truth.  After four centuries of providing prophetic warning, God, who is a perfect balance between holiness and grace, said He had seen and heard enough.  The national destruction started by the people culminated in its defeat when the Babylonian troops road into the land in 588 B.C. Anyone with a logical brain could have seen it coming by just connecting the divine dots.

In many respects, our nation is following the same sinful and sordid downward trajectory of ancient Israel and Judah.  I would be remiss in my calling as a shepherd if I didn’t alert you. Writing in 1989, the late Charles Colson says in his book Against the Night, “times seem to smell of sunset” based on his astute analysis of our cultural and illogical embrace of all things dark and destructive.[1]  Thirty-two years later it seems the sun is setting at an even more rapid rate.  Truth is being replaced with untruth. Reality is being replaced with unreality. Good people are demonized and godless people are praised. Laws are disregarded when they are not convenient to the expansion of power. Truth speakers are silenced, while false speakers are welcomed, even elevated. Instead of pushing for unity, man push for a constant state of chaos as people are purposefully pitted against each other. And so on and so forth. You know what I’m talking about.

Thankfully, God gives us marching orders for sinful times. Since He loves us, He doesn’t leave us twisting helplessly in the proverbial wind, resulting in us losing hope and peace.  On the contrary, He teaches us, as He did His ancient people, how to live when unthinkable things are occurring all around you, things you never thought you would witness in your lifetime.  Psalm 137 is one of those points of divine instruction, and I personally can’t wait to dig into it for I, too, need wisdom and insight for how to live for God in destructive days.

Written during the time of the seventy-year exile in Babylon, the unknown Psalmist, who loved his Lord and his country dearly, gives us wisdom we need for wicked days.  His words are understandably emotionally charged, and raw; however, a cursory reading of this text will lead us to this major motif:

How Should You (as a Christian) Respond To National Calamity? (Psalm 137)

Three concepts arise we should all understand and apply so we are equipped for the rough road ahead:

Express Your Pain (Psalm 137:1-4)

Here the Psalmist remembers what it was like as their 600 mile walk from Israel terminated in Babylon:


By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. 2 Upon the willows in the midst of it We hung our harps. 3 For there our captors demanded of us songs, and our tormentors mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion." 4 How can we sing the LORD's song In a foreign land?

Rivers are typically sources of enjoyment and relaxation.  Who hasn’t stood near the Potomac at Great Falls Park and not been awed by the grandeur of the rapidly moving water cascading over the jagged rocks?  Looking at the Euphrates and the Tigris, as beautiful and magnificent as they were, held no allurement for the defeated and decimated Israelites.

When they reached the river’s edge, they simply sat down, cried, and hung their harps on the weeping willows for they now knew how much they had lost when their nation fell.  They had lost the land flowing with milk and honey. They had lost the enjoyment of the River Jordan. They had lost the wonder of the Sea of Galilee and the therapeutic nature of the Dead Sea.  They had lost the view of the turquoise water of the Mediterranean.  They had lost their cities where so many memories had been built over the centuries.  They had lost their once glorious Temple, the temple God filled when Solomon dedicated it. They lost their desire of singing and playing any and all music.

Their captors taunted them to play and sing, but they just couldn’t do it.  Not in Babylon.  Not at a time when all seemed hopeless.  Can’t you just hear a Babylonian soldier mockingly say, “Hey, let us hear that great second song from your worship book, Psalm 2.”

9 'Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron, Thou shalt shatter them like earthenware.'" 10 Now therefore, O kings, show discernment; Take warning, O judges of the earth. 11 Worship the LORD with reverence, and rejoice with trembling. 12 Do homage to the Son, lest He become angry, and you perish in the way, For His wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him! (Psalm 2).

Who was going to sing this tune when defeat, not victory, was the order of the day? No one.  This day was a time of painful and honest reflection.

You can imagine if our nation fell to a dreaded enemy how we would feel if we took a knee by a river only to hear our enemy say, “Why don’t you people sing us one of your great national songs.”  Who could at that tough, difficult moment burst into an acapella version of . . .

God bless America, land that I love
Stand beside her and guide her
Through the night with the light from above

From the mountains to the prairies
To the oceans white with foam
God bless America, my home sweet home

God bless America, land that I love
Stand beside her and guide her
Through the night with the light from above

From the mountains to the prairies
To the oceans white with foam
God bless America, my home sweet home

From the mountains to the prairies
To the oceans white with foam
God bless America, my home sweet home
God bless America, my home sweet home

Nobody would be singing.

What do we learn from this?  We learn there is a time of silence when unthinkable things happen.  There is a time when you are, as a human, stunned and numbed.  There is a time when you, no matter how tough and spiritually battle-hardened you are, just have to be raw and real before God.  There is a time when you sit and stare at the rushing waters and seek to wrap your mind and heart around what has just happened.

Let me ask you a personal question.  Are you raw and real before God?  I know some are gifted at expressing their emotions, while others feel awkward and don’t even know where to start.  Here’s some divine advice tucked away in Psalm 137.  Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to articulate how you feel about the advancement of evil, or even the seemingly unstoppable victorious march of wickedness in the streets of our great land. Holding your feelings in can, and will, lead to frustration, fear, and depression.  Healthy saints lay where they are at, emotionally and spiritually, out before God.  Do this and He, the living God, will meet you and strengthen you.  I know He will because He has promised this much:

28 "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. 29 "Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. 30 "For My yoke is easy, and My load is light" (Matt. 11).

Sit before this Savior and be open and honest and you will quickly find your heavy yoke of despair is replaced with His light yoke of love and peace.  I know this is true, because this is what He promises here.  It is also what He promised when He told the disciples on the night He was betrayed, “33 These things I have spoke to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16).

In addition to being transparent in troublesome times, you must also . . .

Vow To Be Loyal (Psalm 137:5-6)

Loyal to what? Loyal to who? The Psalmist answers these important pragmatic questions with this statement:

5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget her skill. 6 May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Jerusalem was the site of God’s Temple, the place where He said He would uniquely dwell and give revelatory insight to mankind concerning His person and His requirements for holiness and moral living.

10 And it came about when the priests came from the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the LORD, 11 so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD. 12 Then Solomon said, "The LORD has said that He would dwell in the thick cloud.

13 "I have surely built Thee a lofty house, A place for Thy dwelling forever" (1 Kings 8).

21 Blessed be the LORD from Zion, who dwells in Jerusalem. Praise the LORD! (Ps. 135).

Yes, Jerusalem represented the place on planet earth where God’s inexorable, eternal Law rested in the Ark of the Covenant, and was to be perpetually taught to young and old alike by the priests (Deut. 31:9; 33:4; Neh. 8:7-18).  Jerusalem was, also, the place where sinners could come to the Temple and find coverage for their sins by offering the appropriate sacrifices demanded by God (Lev. 1-7).  Who, therefore, could forget any of this?  To forget Jerusalem would be to forget the God who had lovingly revealed Himself and how to properly approach Him and worship Him.

In light of truths like this, the Psalmist doubles down on the fact he would never dream of forgetting the source of His faith, Jerusalem, the city where God had shown up and given the people true spiritual truth in a world awash in false teaching.  He would never throw in the spiritual towel, no matter how dark the day.  He would never give up, no matter the progress of the wicked.  He would never exchange truth for error just so he could fit in or feel good about himself.  He would ever look away from Jerusalem, even if everyone else looked to Babylon.  In a word, he gave God his utter, unshakeable loyalty.

This is good, sound advice, wouldn’t you agree?  When you feel like you are ground down is the time to stand up and show some spiritual grit, spine, and courage.  True, your emotional response to the decimation you see might be getting the best of you, but there will come the moment when the emotion of fear will turn into the moment of fearlessness. Your culture might be going off the proverbial moral and logical cliff at breakneck speed, but you vow not to go with them.  Your culture embraces lies, but you shall embrace truth.  Your culture seeks to silence your voice by forcing you to speak lies, but you shall speak up and out for truth.  Your culture attempts to get you (for the sake of tolerance) to believe there are many gospels, but you will only ever believe in one gospel. Your culture is working overtime to convince you to believe all faiths are viable, however, you know there is only one faith which saves, therefore, you, like the Peter and Paul will never cease to showcase this gospel.

Yes, right now you might feel like you live in Babylon, but your calling of God couldn’t be clearer:  It’s high time to vow your total allegiance to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. It’s also time to take that vow to the darkened streets to you can be salt to the spiritual, moral decay, and light to the darkness (Mat. 5:13-16).

Finally, at a time of national calamity, be what it may, saints are instructed by these closing words to . . .

Look Backward And Forward (Psalm 137:7-9)

I invite you to read these challenging words from the Psalmist:

7 Remember, O LORD , against the sons of Edom the day of Jerusalem, who said, "Raze it, raze it, to its very foundation." 8 O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, how blessed will be the one who repays you With the recompense with which you have repaid us. 9 How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock.

Tough words which demand our careful analysis and exegesis.

First, let us remember the emotional time in which the Psalmist wrote these troublesome words.  Those who sought to escape the onslaught of the Babylonian army by heading south found all roads blocked by their brothers the Edomites, who had descended from Esau by way of Isaac (Gen. 25).  There is nothing more painful than betrayal by a brother.  Imagine your armed descendant holding you and your family while they awaited the Babylonians to arrive and carry you away into captivity.  Talk about trauma and dysfunction all rolled up into one giant hot mess.

Second, be honest.  We all say things which might be over-the-top when we are emotionally distraught.  None of us had to watch the horror this man saw with his own eyes. Jeremiah recounts in Lamentations how parents had to watch their children faint in the streets for lack of food, and when the 2 ½ year siege became unbearable and food became non-existent, cannibalism kicked in as people’s drive to survive overrode their moral constraints (Lam. 2:20-21).  Josephus recounts the atrocities the Babylonians committed after the siege in their quest to consolidate their power, while also settling scores (Antiquities of the Jews, Book X, chapter 8).  With the bloodthirsty siege still fresh in his mind, the Psalmist is simply emotionally overcome and asks God to bring a little lex talionis, or justice, to bear on the sordid, sad situation.  Can we fault him for being human at an inhumane time?  I don’t think so for we all have our limitations.

Third, the Psalmist was, from his perspective, really looking forward to the time when God, not the Psalmist, will judge the godless.  He had to have known of Obadiah’s prophecy which foretold the divine judgment of Edom, a historically hostile nation, by God sometime during 855 to 841 B.C.  Edom did fall to the Nabateans in 312 B.C., and Judas Maccabeus routed them in 164 B.C., resulting in the nation being non-existent by the first century A.D.  The Psalmist did, in fact, look back to the atrocities committed against his helpless people, but also he turned and looked forward to the day when God would deal with them accordingly, and God did. Additionally, he had to know, from his exposure to Temple teaching, about Isaiah and Jeremiah’s prophecies given some three centuries before the fact of Babylon’s eventual demise because of her many sins (Isaiah 13; 14; 21; Jer. 50, 51).  All of this tells us the Psalmist merely echoed what God had already prophesied: hostile nations like Edom and Babylon would one day have to give account to God for their actions.  Edom has been judged, and Babylon has been partially judged; however, from what we learn in Revelation 17 and 18 the final judgment upon Babylon and the godless Babylonian religious and political system awaits the arrival of Jesus, the Christ.  From this we learn that it is only natural to look back at past atrocities, but we must not dwell on these.  Conversely, we must look to the future when the Lord, not His people, will bring judgment and justice to the wicked.  Paul addresses this truth in his second letter to the Thessalonian church:

6 For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you,

7 and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, 8 dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, 10 when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed-- for our testimony to you was believed (2 Thess. 1).

Vengeance against the wicked belongs to the Lord, so we need to leave this at His feet.  By so doing we will not feel hopeless in hard, evil times, for we will know one day Jesus will, in fact, bring justice where there is injustice, truth where there is untruth, and peace where there is chaos.  Hence, even if our nation were to fall, we, like the ancient Israelites, would still need to look forward to the King’s coming.

As Charles Colson pointed out many years ago, times do smell of sunset, but despite what happens we have our marching orders from the Lord:

Have a little talk with Jesus and tell him about your troubles because He’s actively listening.
Instead of going with the flow of the faithless, vow to God to go against the flow with the faithful.
Don’t forget the past and what the wicked have done, but do spend more time looking for the coming of the Lord.

[1] Charles Colson, Against the Night (Ann Arbor: Servant Publications, 1989), 19.